Mountains of the Continental Divide seen from Trail Ridge Road

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park

Covering little more than 400 square miles, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park boasts a stunning array of more than 100 mountain peaks over 11,000 feet, forests of spruce and fir, glacial lakes and an extensive area of alpine tundra. Its spectacular landscape is fraught with blizzards in winter and its lowland meadows filled with wild flowers during the summer months.

Enos Mills, a dedicated naturalist whose vision and determination helped save this spectacular region from developers, arrived in 1884 and spent the rest of his life exploring its magnificent scenery and bountiful wildlife. He tramped endlessly across the mountains and, due to his persistent efforts, led other conservationists to push President Woodrow Wilson to enact legislation to create this wonderful National Park in 1915.

The attractive city of Denver, only 60 miles to the south, is the gateway to the Rocky Mountains and is served by a modern international airport. Here, we collected our hire car and within a couple of hours were driving into the mountains alongside the tumbling white water of the Big Thompson River. We soon reached the picturesque town of Estes Park, close to the eastern entrance of the National Park, which was a perfect base for our forthcoming forays into the mountains.

We began with the Trail Ridge Road, the USA’s greatest alpine highway, which crosses the park from east to west and rises to 12,183 feet above sea level. It was early July and this high level road, which had been closed due to snow since the previous October, had only just opened for the summer season. The road left Estes Park, past the informative Visitor Centre and into the lush green grass, glistening ponds, graceful willows and colourful wild flowers of Beaver Meadows. Although there was no sign of any beavers, the ponds showed clear evidence of their dam-building skills.

The highway climbed into the mountains winding its way through four more climate zones. First there were the sweet-smelling Ponderosa pines and then the emerald-green beauty of the sub-alpine forest. Deep snow gathers here in winter, melting slowly in spring to provide much-needed water to Colorado’s thirsty population.

We reached the third zone above the clouds at around 11,000 feet, where tree survival becomes more difficult due to the harsh extremes of the weather. Strong winds laden with particles of sand and ice blast all the vegetation and the only trees that survive are knee high specimens of spruce and fir. In true Tolkien-style, this strange landscape is sometimes called the Elfin Forest!

The Trail Ridge Road finally reaches the alpine tundra – a vast treeless wilderness that could be in Canada or Siberia. Plants that grow here on the tundra are very hardy and have learned to survive with very little moisture. Hurricane-force winds scour away any snow that falls, creating an alpine desert.

This fragile environment is extremely susceptible to people’s carelessness, as a badly placed boot can injure a 50-year-old plant that could take centuries to re-grow. It was very cold and blustery when we strolled along the carefully constructed path of the Tundra Communities Trail, amidst a carpet of colourful tiny flowers, to the summit at 12,300 feet.

There were superb views of the Rocky Mountains in all directions. At this lofty elevation, we found it better to walk slowly as there is 35% less oxygen than at sea level! During our return journey we followed a side trail to look at the unusually-shaped ‘Mushroom Rocks’. These strange formations were formed over thousands of years as the granite ‘stem’ of the mushroom erodes faster than the schist rock that makes up the ‘cap’.

There are very few places in the world where you can appreciate so many climate zones in such a short space of time. This is one of them!

The park has dozens of superb hiking trails and many conveniently begin at the Bear Lake Trailhead, just a short drive from Estes Park. We first chose the simple Sprague Lake trail and as it was early morning, we not only had the path to ourselves but also glimpsed abundant wildlife – eagles, falcons, bighorn sheep, marmots, gophers and even the busy little pikas, who appear to frantically search for food all day!

The path by the lake had panoramic views of the mountains of the USA’s Continental Divide. The views were even better, however, along the ‘sub-alpine lake’ trail, which passes Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake and has its terminus at Emerald Lake, tucked right under the mighty cliffs of Hallett Peak and Flat Top Mountain.

It was another very cold day with flurries of snow, but the clouds lifted sufficiently for us to admire the magnificent scenery. We stopped for a picnic by Emerald Lake and watched (with a little envy) some fitter and younger climbers stride on ahead towards the Tyndall Glacier and the ascent of Hallett Peak.

The promise of gold and quick riches brought prospectors to this area in the 1870s. However, many dreams were shattered, as the mines did not produce any meaningful ore. Further south in Colorado, the search for gold was more successful and to complete our visit to the Rocky Mountains, we made the journey to visit The Phoenix Mine near Idaho Springs. Originally discovered in 1871, it is still producing a little gold, though no doubt actually makes more money from inquisitive tourists. We were happy to part with our cash to an informative and eccentric guide to hear the fascinating history of the mine, before walking underground to see the high-grade ore of its famous Phoenix Gold Vein. The glistening gold ore has deliberately been left ‘in situ’ for visitors to touch and admire.

In 1843, Rufus Sage, a mountain enthusiast, wrote about his travels in what is now this National Park area. “There are beautiful lateral valleys, intersected by meandering watercourses, ridged by lofty ledges of precipitous rock, and hemmed in upon the west by vast piles of mountains climbing beyond the clouds. Here, a person can hold daily converse with himself, Nature, and his God, far removed from the annoyance of man!” This is as true today as it was over 170 years ago. Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are absolutely beautiful.

By Nigel Wright
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Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal eleven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

Mountains of the Continental Divide seen from Trail Ridge Road
Estes Park is a picturesque town
The Trail Ridge Road rises through beautiful scenery
Emerald Lake below the cliffs of Hallett Peak
The unusually-shaped ‘Mushroom Rocks’
Peaceful Sprague Lake
Beaver Meadows have colourful wild flowers
The entrance to the Phoenix Gold Mine